What is Caregiver Burnout?

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At some stage in our lives, many of us take on the additional role of caregiver—perhaps to help an aging parent or a chronically sick child.  From a professional nursing perspective, I have aided family members with the stresses that evolve from caregiving for a loved one. I can also speak to this issue on a personal level when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. When this ordeal began, I was overwhelmed and felt I had little control over the situation until I sought assistance.

I can honestly tell you that if the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout. When you’re burned out, it’s tough to do anything, let alone look after someone else. That’s why making time to rest, relax, and recharge isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity.

What Are Some Signs of Caregiver Burnout?

The demands of this caregiving role can be taxing, particularly when you have to juggle it within an already hectic schedule. This can lead to caregiver stress or “burnout”.  The symptoms of caregiver burnout are both physical and emotional in nature and can take a serious toll on your well-being.

So what are the top five signs to look for if you are “burning” out?

Anxiety/Stress – this can manifest itself through changes in sleep patterns (often an inability to sleep), changes in appetite and changes in weight (either significant weight loss or gain)

Exhaustion – this can be emotional or physical which can cause you to become sick more often

Changes in Mood/Behavior – irritability, hopelessness, and a feeling that your life is out of your control

Withdrawal – losing interest and withdrawing from activities, friends or loved ones

Depression – feelings of guilt due to your perceived inability to perform your caregiving role and all other symptoms combined can lead you down the path to depression

What Are Some Ways to Avoid Caregiver Burnout?

The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of the many resources and tools available to help you provide care for your loved one. Remember, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for anyone else. Learning to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and burnout is the first step in dealing with the problem.

It’s important to watch for the warning signs of caregiver burnout and take action right away when you recognize the problem. Once you burn out, caregiving is no longer a healthy option for either you or the person you’re caring for.

Can a Family Member Experience Caregiver Burnout?

Absolutely! Caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, but it also involves changes in the family dynamic, household disruption, financial pressure, and the added workload. It is no wonder that caregivers are some of the people most prone to burnout.

According to Statistics Canada, there are at least 28% of Canadians providing care to a family member or friend with a long term health care condition, disability or aging needs. In the U.S, that number increases to 36%.

If you or someone you know is experiencing caregiver burnout, should they stop caring or take a break from caring for that person?

Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. Don’t try to do it all alone. Look into respite care or enlist friends and family who live near you to run errands, bring a hot meal, or tend to the care receiver so you can take a well-deserved break.

Speak up – Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be upfront about what’s going on with you and the person you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them — even if you’re unsure how they’ll be received.

Spread the responsibility – Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up caregiving tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example. Even with the assistance of a home care company, I scheduled every family member to be with my mother during the evening and overnight.

Set up a regular check-in – Ask a family member, friend, or volunteer from your church or senior center to call you on a set basis (every day, weekly, or however often you think you need it). This person can help you spread status updates and coordinate with other family members.

Say “yes” when someone offers assistance – Don’t be shy about accepting help. Let them feel good about supporting you. It’s smart to have a list ready of small tasks that others could easily take care of, such as picking up groceries or driving your loved one to an appointment.

Be willing to relinquish some control – Delegating is one thing. Trying to control every aspect of care is another. People will be less likely to help if you micromanage, give orders, or insist on doing things your way.

Is There a Difference Between Caregiver Burnout and Depression?

Too much stress, especially over a long time, can harm your health. As a caregiver, you’re more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, you may not get enough sleep or physical activity, or eat a balanced diet which increases your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and

Are There Any Resources or Support Groups for Caregiver Burnout?

A caregiver support group is a great way to share your troubles and find people who are going through the same experiences that you are living each day. If you can’t leave the house, many Internet groups are also available.

In most support groups, you’ll talk about your problems and listen to others talk; you’ll not only get help, but you’ll also be able to help others. Most importantly, you’ll find out that you’re not alone. You’ll feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and their knowledge can be invaluable, especially if they’re caring for someone with the same illness as you are.

Can Caregiver Burnout Lead to Health Issues?

Caregiver stress can be particularly damaging since it is typically a chronic, long-term challenge. You may face years or even decades of caregiving responsibilities. It can be particularly disheartening when there’s no hope that your family member will get better. Without adequate help and support, the stress of caregiving leaves you vulnerable to a wide range of physical and emotional problems, ranging from heart disease to depression.

Should I Feel Guilty About Wanting to Take a Break From Caring For My Loved One?

The bottom line is never to forget YOU in the caregiving equation.  Always be sure to set aside some personal time to satisfy your needs and interests.  Focus on your health by maintaining a good diet and enough exercise.  If you do not remain healthy and happy, physically and emotionally, it is even harder for you to satisfy your caregiver role and look after someone else.

Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.

Author Bio: Anne Rockingham is an accomplished healthcare professional with nearly 40 years of experience in nursing. Anne’s career began when she graduated as a Registered Nurse and continued her undergraduate studies at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York and Brock University in St. Catharines. Since then, she has gained experience in the public and private sectors holding multiple positions including Staff Nurse, Supervisor Nurse, Nurse Educator, National Manager and Quality Implementation Coordinator. She is currently Nurse Next Door’s Director of Clinical Operations, North America.

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